Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich raises the possibility of impeaching President Barack Obama for aggressive air strikes against Libya, while Mitt Romney, a potential Republican presidential candidate, says the policy shows the commander in chief to be “tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced.”
Obama can brush aside these criticisms. Every modern president would have been impeached under Kucinich’s standards. And, to borrow a time-worn phrase, if Obama walked across the Potomac River, rivals such as Romney would say that only proves he can’t swim.
What the president can’t brush aside is Muammar Qaddafi, who he declared must leave power. If a year from now the dictator still rules Libya, thumbing his nose at the West and plotting revenge, Obama’s political prospects will suffer and Romney’s critique will resonate.
Libya is of marginal strategic interest to the U.S., especially compared with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Yet in the short run, symbolically and politically, Obama may have more at stake.
The analogy that might give the president comfort would be George W. Bush’s boast, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that the U.S. would get Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.” Not only did Bush fail, but a couple of months later, when bin Laden reportedly was cornered in Tora Bora, the U.S. failed to act. In his memoirs, Bush’s domineering defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, insists no one told him the al-Qaeda leader was within striking distance.
Yet that analogy has flaws. In the 2004 elections, three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. still was in a rally-around-the-flag mood, and Democrats didn’t capitalize on the administration’s failures.
Foreign policy, except in times of unpopular and higher-casualty wars, rarely drives U.S. elections. In 2004, the Iraq war wasn’t a determinative factor in Bush’s re-election. Twelve years earlier, his father lost his bid for a second term, despite a more successful effort in throwing Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait. In 1956, almost no one voted against Dwight D. Eisenhower because he didn’t come to the aid of the unsuccessful uprising in Hungary.
Contemporaneously, Obama’s handling of Egypt may be much more important for the region. Yet in calling on President Hosni Mubarak to step down in an orderly way, the U.S. knew it had some institutional support within Egypt; there is no such support in Libya.
The policy appears ad-hoc and inconsistent. One day the stakes are huge, the next it’s no big deal; Qaddafi has to go, unless he doesn’t; the U.S. is providing leadership, except when it isn’t.
The contention that the president exceeded his authority in the airstrikes on Libya seems specious to most war-powers experts.
More problematic has been the failure of the White House to explain to Congress or the country why it has taken a more aggressive posture. Even a number of Democrats nodded when House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, complained that U.S. military resources had been committed without defining the mission.
When lawmakers like Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican and a foreign-policy mentor to Obama when he was in the Senate, and Democrat Jim Webb complain about a lack of consultation or clarity of policy, that’s far more credible than the gripes of Kucinich or Romney.
After more than a week, with the distraction of a trip to Latin America, Obama still hasn’t laid out a coherent strategy or plausible endgame to the public. The president will have an opportunity to do so in a speech tonight.
One of Many Despots
There was a very legitimate debate on Libya within the administration, with both sides making a compelling case. Skeptics argue, sure, Qaddafi is a monster, but the world is full of such despots: Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Kim Jong-Il in North Korea and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The U.S. lacks the military economic and political wherewithal to take all of them out. With two wars, the military is already stretched too thin, a state of affairs reflected in Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ reservations about the Libya action.
All true, acknowledge the interventionists, including most of the top women in this administration. However, if Qaddafi were permitted to brutally repress a genuine uprising, he would encourage dictators throughout the region and signal that the U.S. only pays lip-service to promoting human rights and democratic values. The factors are geopolitical as well as humanitarian.
A parallel they cite is the former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who committed atrocities in Bosnia for years, until Richard Holbrooke and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright finally persuaded President Bill Clinton to intervene. The genocide stopped, and Milosevic eventually fell. That’s the aim in Libya.
The criticism from neoconservatives that Obama is a multilateralist, hesitant to exercise American power, in the mold of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan -- committing more troops and more air assaults than the Bush administration even considered -- stayed the course in Iraq, and when the Somali pirates took a U.S. freighter captain hostage, the president ordered Navy snipers to shoot the captors; three pirates were killed and the American freed.
Rapprochement With Libya
Further, the Reagan and Bush examples, so cherished by conservatives, are especially ironic when discussing Libya. It was Bush five years ago who normalized relations with Qaddafi after the dictator renounced weapons of mass destruction. That easing of tensions has enriched his coffers to pay for the current repression.
Reagan did bomb Libya in 1986 in retaliation for terrorist acts. Two years later, the erratic Libyan dictator masterminded the downing of Pan Am Flight 103, which was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 189 Americans. There was no retaliation of any consequence.
If the current move doesn’t topple the aging colonel, he will assuredly taunt Obama and plot similar acts of terrorism.
The White House usually doesn’t look to Sarah Palin for political wisdom. When she declared the other day that the objective in Libya has to be to “win it,” and “win it means Qaddafi goes,” she could have been channeling Obama.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)